With United States President George W. Bush scheduled to decide shortly on a US$34 million appropriation by Congress of funds from the United Nations population agency, anti-abortion and population activists are burning up White House phone lines in an attempt to influence the outcome.
After more than a month of negotiations that held up passage of a US$15 billion foreign aid bill, Senate advocates of family-planning programs and anti-abortion lawmakers in the House of Representatives agreed in December on a compromise that permitted Bush to provide up to US$34 million to support the UN Population Fund's (UNFPA) 2002 work on maternal health in developing countries, with Secretary of State Colin Powell's backing.
But after signing the bill into law last week, Bush unexpectedly placed a hold on the money, apparently under pressure from New Jersey Republican Christopher Smith, leader of anti-abortion forces in the House of Representatives, who had only reluctantly gone along with the December compromise.
With Bush's top advisers scheduled to meet Wednesday to take up the issue, both sides are mobilizing their followers to help amplify their views.
New York Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney--who also played a key role in forging the compromise proposal--denounced the hold as being "against the will of Congress, against the written support of Secretary Powell, and against the crucial needs of millions of women and children."
In addition, Mike Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, also complained about the White House action, arguing that "working for the long-term stability of these countries is in the direct national interest of the United States."
"Just two months ago, the President believed enough in the work of UNFPA to invest an additional US$600,000 in its programs in Afghanistan," noted Amy Coen, president of Population Action International, a Washington-based family-planning research group. "What's changed in two months? What have women done to deserve this?"
Without U.S. funding, UNFPA estimates that its ability to prevent 800,000 abortions and the deaths of 4,700 mothers and 77,000 children under the age of five will be seriously hampered.
Bush's unexpected review is the latest twist in a 20-year controversy over U.S. population aid.
While Washington has long been the world's top source of aid for family-planning programs, anti-abortion forces succeeded in getting tight restrictions placed on the aid beginning under the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan's "Mexico City" policy decreed that no overseas agency which provides or promotes abortion in any way could receive U.S. population assistance.
The same forces also assailed UNFPA, particularly for its support of China's population program, which included coercive abortions. The result was a drop in U.S. contributions to the agency, and eventually a formula was worked out which deducted every dollar spent by UNFPA in China from U.S. contributions to the agency.
Although Bill Clinton's election as president in 1992 saw the lifting of the Mexico City policy and an increase in funding to UNFPA, one of Bush's first acts on taking office last year was to reinstate the policy as well as asking Congress to approve US$25 million for UNFPA in 2002, the same as in 2001, subject to the China-related deductions.
Last year, however, the two houses of Congress diverged significantly on population assistance. While the House approved Bush's request, the Senate passed a version of the bill which repealed the Mexico City language and provided more money for UNFPA.
To resolve the deadlock, the Senate agreed not to question the Mexico City policy in exchange for a significantly greater contribution to UNFPA. In addition, the lawmakers agreed to drop the provision for automatically deducting U.S. contributions to the agency by the amount it spends in China.
"In Afghanistan, women bear an average of seven children. Worldwide, a woman dies every minute in childbirth," said PAI's Coen. "For years, UNFPA has worked to better these odds, helping to make critical health services available to women in the poorest parts of the world," she said, adding that Bush's action was "unconscionable."
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